‘Critters’ with Oscar-winning fx artist Gene Warren

Title: Critters (1986)
Rated: PG-13
Direced by:
Stephen Herek
Written by:
Stephen Herek and
Dominic Muir
Starring:
Dee Wallace Stone as Helen Brown
M. Emmet Walsh as Harv
Billy Green Bush as Jay Brown
Scott Grimes as Brad Brown
Nadine Van Der Velde as April Brown
Billy Zane as Steve Elliot
Terrence Mann as Johnny Steel
Lin Shaye as Sally

By Erin Tanner 

Erin could certainly identify...

Pre-screening memoriesTo protect myself from the merciless teasing I’m going to receive for admitting how deeply scarred I was by this film, I have to explain that I saw fewer movies growing up than most other kids my age. I grew up on a farm surrounded by nearly a thousand acres of woods, fields, and rivers; its remoteness created a near-idyllic backdrop for my formative years, but it also meant shitty television reception. The most harrowing things I’d seen on large or small screen before 1987 consisted of the ending of The Last Unicorn, the episode of Little House on the Prairie in which Mary goes blind, and an upsetting few seconds of hard-core pornography I glimpsed after I punched in the wrong coordinates on my grandmother’s Hubble-sized satellite dish.  

Did someone say 'hardcore porn?'

Until Critters, I don’t think I was even aware of horror films at all. Even had I been familiar with most of the mid-1980s horror fare, its protagonists were usually horny teenagers driving around and necking in suburbia – not exactly characters that resonated with me in fifth grade.   

But the farm-dwelling family in Critters was uncomfortably similar to my own, and indeed to that of most of my friends: wise, hardworking father; devoted, protective mother; a son who loves explosives; a daughter who’d like to make out in the hayloft with a young Billy Zane. I first saw it on VHS with four of my friends at a slumber party (there was no slumbering that night, I can tell you), the film’s parodical elements soaring well over our heads as we watched the ravenous Crites of Prison Asteroid Sector 17 Maximum Security Holding Facility make their diabolical way to Earth and rain furry hell down upon its inhabitants.   

"Leonardo DiCaprio, we're waiting for you!"

New Memories: What struck me first during my second viewing of Critters is that a lot of the acting is surprisingly good. Dee Wallace holds a special place in the hearts of most people my age after playing Elliott’s mother in E.T. and that kid from Who’s The Boss’s mother in Cujo. She’s the quintessential screen mom: blonde, attractive, always exuding a querulous, waffling charm at the film’s outset but proving by the end that she’s got a steely core of don’t-mess-with-my-family badassery.

Dee Wallace, like your mom...only more ass-kickier.

If you’re in an ’80s movie and suddenly find yourself facing an attack from an unexpected quarter – government agents in spacesuits, a rabid St. Bernard, or red-eyed, pompadoured aliens – you want Dee Wallace at your back. Not only will she save you and kick a little tail while doing so, but she’ll probably make you hot cocoa afterward. 

I had completely forgotten that the intergalactic bounty hunters were pseudo-Body-Snatchers-style shape-shifters, and had also forgotten that the bounty hunter Ug was played by Bob Geldof (just kidding—it’s Terrence Mann). I don’t remember how I felt about Ug/Johnny Steele/Geldof back in 1987, but I’m pretty sure that once I got an eyeful of that deliciously frosted mullet and Duran Duran-style duster jacket, I must have thought he was pretty rad.     

Holding the magic House Rebuilding Button, designed by the Amish.

Ultimately, I had assumed that the intervening decades between my first and second viewings of Critters would allow me to look back on the completely irrational fears it inspired and laugh. And while I did laugh at them (and at many points in the film – how can you not?), it turned out to be an erroneous assumption, because I spent most of the second viewing watching through my fingers like I did the first time. 

Then again, fears are relative: If I had to choose today between facing a cellar full of slavering, poison-spine-shooting alien monsters and a living room full of sleep-deprived 11-year-old girls hopped up on warm Jolt Cola, Pixy Stix, and horror films, I’d grab Dee Wallace and a handful of firecrackers and take my chances with the Crites.  

Download Natsukashi’s ‘Critters’ podcast right here

or roll on down below to our on-site player:  

Our featured guest: Gene Warren

Oscar-winning legend and legacy Gene Warren has spent a lifetime in the special effects industry. Under the tutlage of his Oscar-winning father, Gene picked up odd jobs while planning his path to be a stuntman. But something funny happened on the way to the explosion. From his early days of working on such touchstone series as I Dream of Jeannie, Gidget, and Land of the Lost (where he got to manipulate the dinosaurs!).Since then, he has moved on to add effect to everything from the miniscule-budgeted features (Killer Klowns from Outer Space, anyone?) to some of the biggest films in box office history (T2: Judgement Day). His company Fantasy II Film Effects was brought on to the Critters set after initial production had wrapped, but created perhaps one of the most memorable sequences of the film. Find out more about Gene’s handiwork in the podcast. 

Thanks to Gene for your memories and sharing your Critters tales with Natsukashi.

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5 Comments

  1. Another excellent article, another great podcast! Well done guys.

    • Erin’s a great writer, and has a mind like a steel trap (usually with many dead things caught in it). She has more film suggestions, it’s just a matter of me tracking some people down to join us.

  2. Thanks for the interview I loved it. Critters is my favorite movie of all time and there is not much stuff to hear about the making of the film so every interview is lalways cool to hear. I would love to hear an interview with Don Opper from the movie.

    • So noted, Chris. Thanks and we will certainly give it stab.

      • Damn, that’s a cool perspective. Never thought about it in those terms. We often bemoan the use of computer technology in films here, but in the film’s context it is so fitting. I also love it’s deliberate pace, which helps draw you further into the “game” and care for who wins and loses.


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